Airline talks go past wire

Negotiators seek to avert strike by US Airways union

Shutdown possible

March 25, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Labor negotiators for US Airways and its union of flight attendants suspended a midnight deadline for resolving contract talks late last night, working into the morning to reach a deal and avert a shutdown of the nation's sixth-largest airline.

"Both sides have agreed to continue talking, and they're still exchanging proposals," said union spokeswoman Cynthia Kain early this morning.

The two sides reported progress in the afternoon, saying several disagreements over a proposed employment contract for the 9,800 flight attendants had been resolved.

But the key issues of salary and benefits were still being negotiated last night, as the clock wound closer to the airline's threatened grounding of 2,200 daily flights and 180,000 passengers nationwide.

"We think it's a good sign that they're still talking," Baltimore flight attendant Karen Yates said this morning while attending an all-night rally near Washington. "If there wasn't significant progress, they'd probably just go home."

The airline and the Association of Flight Attendants negotiated throughout the day yesterday, in an undisclosed location and under a strict order of secrecy imposed by federal mediators.

An airline spokesman said negotiators worked past the midnight deadline at the request of the National Mediation Board, which was overseeing the talks. Negotiators did not set a new deadline, but both sides stuck to their promises to strike or shut down the airline if a contract is not reached, he said.

US Airways revised its offer to the flight attendants yesterday. Without being specific, the company released a notice to employees saying that it "has offered alternative ways to achieve its goal of a contract that is cost competitive with the major four airlines."

"We don't want to shut down this airline," said spokesman David A. Castelveter.

"We understand the hardship this would cause."

Besides choking off a Fortune 500 company's chance at turning a profit this year, a shutdown could clog airports and rail stations throughout the East Coast. US Airways is among the largest carriers at all three Baltimore-Washington area airports.

It also operates major hubs in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., and is the top carrier for service between New England and Florida.

"Our sincere hope is that we have a contract by midnight, but if we don't, we hope the flying public remembers that this airline shut itself down," said Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Union members notched up their picketing and other demonstrations at US Airways' airports, including candlelight vigils last night in 26 cities around the country.

A vigil at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport continued past 1 a.m., said Yates, who helped coordinate the rally for Baltimore-area flight attendants.

About half the participants started leaving after midnight, she said, because they had to report to work at 5 a.m. and couldn't wait to see whether a deal was reached.

The airline had sent letters to employees detailing how the $8.6 billion corporation would grind to a stop if the flight attendants couldn't agree on a contract. Company officials told employees to arrive at work today prepared for activities related to the shutdown," promising to pay everyone but the flight attendants -- or any employee who declines to cross a picket line.

The Arlington, Va.,-based carrier has threatened for a month to shut down rather than subject passengers to the union's promised campaign of sudden, unannounced walkouts on flights. The flight attendants have said they would disrupt operations with a random campaign of "CHAOS" -- Create Havoc Around Our System.

The flight attendants, who have sought a new employment contract since 1996, are paid between $17,100 and $37,000 annually and have not had a raise in four years.

But the airline is not overflowing with cash, either. Though it made a collective profit the past five years of more than $2 billion, US Airways lost $166 million in the last half of 1999 and is expected to lose more in the first quarter of this year.

Airline executives have waged an aggressive campaign to cut expenses, which are among the highest in the industry.

Labor troubles have been partly to blame for US Airways' losses, and the flight attendants' dispute is tipping the balance sheet further.

Analysts estimate that the airline will spend $20 million or more every day it is shut down, wiping out hope of turning a profit for the year in as little as a week.

Every other union at US Airways has signed a contract using a "parity plus one" formula that pays salaries and benefits 1 percent higher than the average paid by rival airlines Delta, American, United and Northwest.

But at Delta, the flight attendants are not unionized and are paid less than their unionized counterparts. At the other two, the flight attendants are expected to renegotiate their contracts soon.

The flight attendants at US Airways say they can't live with such uncertainty and for them the "parity plus one" concept would amount to a 4.9 percent pay cut.

A shutdown of US Airways would be felt most in the Northeast and in routes to Florida, where the airline's traffic is heaviest.

Amtrak has promised to add 2,000 seats to its commuter trains to accommodate US Airways passengers.

The railroad and almost all competing airlines have agreed that they will accept US Airways' tickets.

But the end of March is a busy travel period for college students and vacationing families, and most airlines say their bookings are above normal.

"It could just be a disaster -- especially on the Eastern Seaboard," said Rose Marie Smith, owner of Far Corners Travel in Stoneleigh.

"We're scrambling to cover everyone on other carriers, but there just isn't room.

"We're kind of sitting on edge here."

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